Like so many chefs, Chad Meier of Meraki, 939 S 2nd St., didn’t always aspire to becoming a chef. Growing up in the Brookfield area, he landed at UW-Milwaukee, where he intended to study architecture. But, after getting his feet wet in the academic world, he decided it wasn’t a good fit after all. Instead, he ended up enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He completed two internships as part of his program – one in the Twin Cities at Napa Valley Grill and the other at Pelican Pub in Oregon. Once he finished school, he came back home to Milwaukee, where he cut his teeth working in restaurants including Black Trumpet, Andrew’s in Delafield and The Gasthouse. Along the way, he met his wife and now partner-in-crime, Malissa, and the two worked together as a number of restaurants – unknowingly paving the way for their work together at Meraki.
One thing led to another and Meier found his way back to Oregon, where he worked for Justin Wills at Restaurant Beck for about two years, and subsequently back to Milwaukee where he helped open Blue Jacket in Walker’s Point.
"When I left Blue Jacket, I picked up a number of fun odd jobs," says Meier. "I worked at the Stackner Cabaret with a friend of mine, which was really fun, and I also worked in the warehouse at Braise RSA."
The work rounded out his experiences with various types of restaurants, and allowed him time to scope out locations for his own restaurant, which he opened in 2014 with Malissa.
The restaurant is gaining footing in the Walker’s Point area, where it’s becoming known for its world-inspired cuisine. So, we thought it was a good time to catch up with Meier and chat a bit more about his work, experience and things that make him tick in the kitchen.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Were you always interested in the kitchen?
Chad Meier: No. In fact, my dad cooked at home all the time, and always wanted people to help out in the kitchen. But, I didn’t really enjoy it. He was always encouraging me to take summer jobs in restaurant kitchens and I just never did. It wasn’t until after I left UWM that I got my first job in a kitchen as a dishwasher.
OMC: And that turned things around for you?
CM: It did. I started as a dishwasher and then – within three weeks – I was doing prep. Before I knew it, I was in D.C. training new people for the chain I worked for.
OMC: What was it about the work that made you decide it was the thing for you?
CM: It was a lot of things. The work… you have to put all of yourself into it. And that was really appealing. Before that experience, nothing clicked. I’d gone through four majors in school, but this hit on the art and the craft and the logistics and analytical thinking. All of that.
OMC: Meraki is your first restaurant. How does it feel to own your own place?
CM: With everything, there’s good and bad. But, that feeling of ownership and having a family supporting me, that’s great.
OMC: How did the concept for the restaurant materialize?
What Malissa and I first wanted to do was to open a drive-through. But, we didn’t really find what we wanted in terms of space. We actually passed this building (the current location for Meraki) like eight times, and people kept recommending it to us. And we didn’t think it was what we wanted. But, then we toured the space and it was perfect.
From there, the concept really developed around the space. We knew it would really lend itself to a casual fine dining space where things were very playful, and we really try to stick with that. It naturally had the potential to be a very industrial space, but needed a lot of soft embellishments. We saw that it would work perfectly for a completely open kitchen, and the fact that it was divided naturally into two separate spaces meant we could do both a bar and a more formal dining room.
OMC: The open kitchen. Does that impact the way you operate?
CM: For us it changes things – we can see people, their reactions. We can talk with people about the food. And that can be really meaningful and fun. It also means that we feel appreciated. We’re not back behind a wall where we can’t see how people interact with the food we send out.
On the flipside, guests get to see everything – the energy, the vibe in the kitchen –- how we move and how we plate. They can observe see everything… wonder about things… What is that? Is that my dish? It makes them a part of it.
From day one, we’ve always called it "the stage" – because that’s, in a way, what it is.
OMC: How about the name?
CM: Meraki – it’s a greek word meaning "taking care" – and it really expresses the desire to make the guests central. The word is very expressive and it gets at what happens when you incorporate yourself in your work. It’s about bearing your soul and sharing that with people.
OMC: Do a lot of people assume you’re a Greek restaurant?
CM: Yes. And it’s true in the sense that we do world cuisine. But, it’s not Greek all the time.
OMC: What’s your favorite thing on the menu right now?
Right now it’s the Okonomiyaki pancake. It’s really street food from Japan that is meant for eating while you’re out for drinking. It’s a fluffy, sort of dense pancake, and we fill it with all sorts of vegetables. It’s fun, and we can be really creative with it.
OMC: What’s one thing you wish people knew about Meraki?
CM: We’re really all about the guest and their experience here, overall. We have very different spaces that take care of different aspects of that. But, I want it to be about that. We’re not pretentious or stuff. It’s about the details – and it all revolves around the guest. Nothing is for us, it’s all for them.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
CM: Not really, I mean the menu reflects a lot of things… but our theme has really become: classic cuisine, modern technique. We have traditional Italian, Asian, Mexican, North African. Everyone in the kitchen is involved with the menu development. And so we’re really pulling from all over the place. We really try to find fun concepts from specific traditions. And the process really becomes making the dish in a really traditional way and then trying it again, tweaking it and adding really fun playful elements.
OMC: Do you have any favorite places yet to eat out in Milwaukee?
CM: Definitely. Odd Duck, Hinterland... and the longer I’m here, the more I connect with chefs on this street. People like Dave Swanson - he’s a really great chef and business owner, and it’s great to get to know people. They’re doing great stuff.
OMC: That’s true. What’s your overall impression of the Milwaukee scene?
CM: When I left for Oregon, I felt like Milwaukee was about six or more years behind the coasts. Sanford has always been – far and away – at the front. And Dave Swanson was doing cool things. But, when I got back I definitely saw a shift. You were seeing more stretching, more interesting things. And at that point, maybe we were only like two years behind.
Now, I think there’s some things where we’re right there. And there are also places where we’re pushing it. I think the camaraderie that’s developed between chefs is really a big part of the picture. And it’s really what will really help us to grow more quickly. Honestly, that really can be said about just about anything in the city. You need to be working together to move forward.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
CM: That’s tough. It’s either Momofuco or Nose to Tail. It’s the soul involved in how they write their cookbooks. You really feel like you’re having a conversation with them.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
CM: I think the coolest thing is really the modern, gastro-science thing. It’s kind of lifted us up and then ebbed away. And it’s left us with some things that are really significant. It’s not all about a foam or a powder. It’s about why did you do that? How are you heightening the level of cuisine?
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
CM: Honestly, a normal bouillon or soup spoon. I use it more than just about anything.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
CM: I don’t feel guilty about any dining pleasures. Even the x-rated ones... I wouldn’t go against those.
OMC: If you could cook for anyone in the world, who would it be? And what would you serve?
CM: I’d love to cook for Alton Brown. Absolutely, without a doubt. And I’d make anything and everything. I’d just want to cook and talk shop. It would be either him or Anthony Bordain.
OMC: Speaking of chefs, do you have particular respect for any celebrity chefs?
CM: Honestly, I have respect for anyone who does this. Anyone who goes out and bleeds and sweats… anyone who goes in and gives it everything, even knowing that they might fail.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.